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Thursday, October 18, 2012

What if Noah said NO?"

A few years ago, my sixth graders and I happened upon a Plaut Commentary that was missing several pages -- the whole Noah story, in fact, and some of Abraham and Sarah. I guess we were in a silly mood, because we began joking about how Noah and the others had fled the Torah, and then we began imagining why they might have wanted to escape and what we might do to get them to return.

We had so much fun letting our imaginations go wild, we decided to write a chapter book centering on this fantastical concept.

So each student took one or a group of characters and envisioned where he, she, or they might go. Each student then created a fictional version of herself (the class was all girls that year) and placed herself in the story, as the heroine who ultimately helps make the Torah whole.

There were only a few requirements for the students: They had to create a whole chapter, with a beginning, middle, and end; they had to determine why their character(s) left the story and where the character(s) went; and they had to make a convincing case for an ultimate return.

There were many interesting aspects to this project -- but the one that stands out in my mind is how many of the stories the students created involved being afraid. The student who chose Noah decided that Noah left the Torah because he was scared to take responsibility for all the animals' lives. The student who chose the dove decided that the dove fled because she knew that at the end of the story she would leave Noah for good, and she was scared to go out on her own. The student who chose the animals (led by a grumpy elephant) decided that the animals were scared to believe in Noah's predictions about a flood and to put their lives in Noah's hands.

As I read their stories, it occurred to me that fear is a big component of a sixth-grader's life. Sixth graders fear being ostracized, they fear feeling left out, and they fear that their friends will let them down. They're scared of failing tests, they're scared of missing buses, they're scared of being late to class or being yelled at by a teacher for some infraction they didn't intend. They're scared of being considered a "baby," -- but they're also scared of growing up.

So I read these stories with particular interest in how each student's fictional persona would behave. And I was impressed with what I read. The students' alter egos were all calm, kind, and understanding individuals who made compelling cases for abandoning fear. Noah came back, for example, because his heroine convinced him that the beauty of the natural world was too precious to abandon; the dove returned because her heroine helped her understand that there comes a time when you have to leave the nest -- or, in this case, ark -- but you can always come back to visit. The elephant decided to lead the way back because his heroine helped him notice a cute lady elephant, and he realized he wanted to move forward with his life.

And as they convinced their characters to come back, my students also wrote in some rewards for being brave -- specifically, Noah got a cup of ice cream to enjoy, and the elephant -- well, he ate some peanuts while he deliberated his fate.

I hope that when my students have to deal with fear, they get the same kind of comfort their alter egos gave to our missing Torah characters.

And I hope that those who comfort them realize that a little nosh goes a long way!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Haazinu: Why A Rock?


Not too long ago, I took a class about God led by a very imaginative rabbi. When we arrived, there were several items placed on table in the center of the room, including a bunch of wildflowers, a clock, a Bible, and a container of Elmer's Glue. He asked us: Which of these items most closely match your concept of God?

It was a provocative and intriguing task. Who would chose the flowers, believing that God was expressed in nature? Who would choose the clock, thinking of God mainly in the passage of time and the experience of different life stages and lifecycle events? Did God mainly exist for some of us in the realm of prayer, religion, and sacred texts? Or was God the glue that held us together during our darkest moments?

The most interesting result of this exercise was not what we chose, but how strongly we felt about our choices. Each of us had a specific concept of God that was expressed in one of the items on the table.

I think of these lessons and teachings around this time of year, when I discuss Haazinu, one of the last portions in the Torah, with my students. Sometimes called "The Song of Moses," this portion is part of the set of instructions that Moses offers shortly before he is to die, and includes a section written in verse that seeks to express the relationship between the Israelites and God.

The song describes God as "The Rock--whose deeds are perfect," and later "an eagle who rouses its nestlings." My students' reaction, in a word, was "Why?'

Why a rock? Why an eagle? Why compare God to anything? Why not say what God is, instead of what God is like?

The thing is, 11- and 12-year-olds, they crave concreteness and certainty, and they hate ambivalence. They live in a world of tests and grades and rules, where the answers are clear, and right and wrong are obvious. They want to know what God is. They hate that I have no answer.

So they tell me their own images of God, perceptions they've had as long as they can remember. Some cling to the age-old image of an old man with a beard. Some continue to use the pronoun "he," even while asserting that God has no gender, because God is not a person.

Then I ask them if they can find any answers in Moses' words -- "The Rock!"

And they tell me:

A rock is strong.
A rock is forever
A rock is dependable
A rock is always there.
A rock doesn't really change.
And finally... a rock is as large and unmoveable as a mountain, but also as small and portable as a pebble in your pocket.

I think they know more about God than they realize.






Friday, September 21, 2012

Yom Kippur: Is it all about the Rules?

Not too long ago, my teenage son was invited to join a group of friends who were attending a nearby event. Now, I don't know exactly what was going to happen at this event, but whatever it was, my son said he was uncomfortable going. 'Nuf said.

Still, he didn't want to be the guy who wimped out, so he asked my husband and me, "Can I tell them you guys are making me do something else that night?"

"Of course," we said. "Blame it all on us. Make us the bad guys. We're happy to be the heavies."

Even when you're a teenager, authority can sometimes come in handy.

I think of that story at this time of year, which can be an anxious time for sixth graders. Yom Kippur is just days away, and as twelve year olds, they think it's the last time they can decline to fast and not feel guilty about it.

"Next year, we have to fast," one says.

"I'm going to try this year," another comments.

"But you don't have to," a third responds. "Next year, you have to."

Inevitably this leads to a conversation about different family members and their Yom Kippur habits and routines. One student mentions that her mother refrains from eating but still drinks a morning cup of coffee, or else she'll get a migraine. Another says that his grandfather passed out in synagogue one year when he hadn't eaten, and since then he has never fasted. All fully understand that when one's health is at stake or one may truly suffer physical distress, then it's okay to eat on Yom Kippur.

But for these young, strong, and able-bodied students, no waivers are acceptable -- at least according to them. As far as they're concerned, there are no exceptions when you're thirteen.

I understand their anxiety. Not eating from sunset to sunset is hard! Plus, it's an experience they've never had. All they know is that when lunchtime comes at school, they're hungry, and if they go to a restaurant where there's a hour wait, it's almost too much to bear. They don't know how their body will respond as the hours go by. They don't yet know what coping mechanisms they will use to get them through.

But at the same time, their view of this solemn holiday troubles me. It's not a marathon, it's not endurance test, and it's definitely not a competition. There's no finish line and no medal given once the 24th hour as passed. Fasting is less about the absence of food and more about the decision behind that absence. Its's less about what you're doing and more about why.

In the past, I've tried to offer this alternative way of thinking to my sixth graders, but typically they refuse to enter this more nuanced realm of thought. "No you have fast at thirteen," they tell me. "You have to."

Common wisdom tells us that preteens and teens abhor rules. Tell them what to do, experts say, and they'll rebel; it's best to give them the tools to make a good decision on their own. And yet, sometimes kids this age appreciate rules (even though they'll never admit it). Rules trump doubt and ambivalence, so they can sometimes be a great help in relieving anxiety.

So I've decided that this year, my sixth graders can talk about rules.

So maybe in a year or two, they can talk about reasons.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Nitzavim: "And I'll Be Watching You"


I remember the day my daughter decided she wanted to walk home from school. She was in eighth grade, so it seemed a reasonable request, but the path home took her across a five-cornered intersection that even an adult would find challenging. Of course, she had to cross streets by herself sometime; I couldn't guard her from oncoming traffic for the rest of her life. And so I agreed that she could do it -- if she consented to a few simple instructions.

"Make sure you press the button and wait for the 'walk' sign," I said.

"I will," she agreed.

"But it's not enough to just wait for the 'walk' sign," I added. "Don't start to cross until you see that all the cars have stopped."

"Okay," she said.

"A complete stop."

She nodded.

"But don't just assume that the drivers know you're crossing, even if the cars are stopped," I said. "Make eye contact with the drivers so you know they see you."

She nodded.

"And call me just before you cross, so I know when you've started."

"Okay."

"And call me again after you reach the other side, so I know you got there safely."

She sighed. "Forget it, Mom," she said. "Just pick me up in the car like usual."

I like to tell this story to my sixth graders when we study the portion Nitzavim, because I find it to be one of literature's most beautiful expressions of parental love. Moses, who will be allowed to view the Promised Land but will die before he can ever enter it, speaks to the Israelites like a parent about to bid goodbye to a cherished child, giving final instructions before he must leave them to fend for themselves.

You can feel the urgency in his voice, the pressure of time bearing down, as he urges his followers to keep God's commandments, to love God completely, and above all, to "Choose life" whenever the opportunity to make such a choice arises.

So I ask my sixth graders to think about the times when their parents felt like Moses did -- and then, I ask them to think about a time when they may have felt like Moses. When, I ask, did you ever have to go away and let someone else take care of something you loved?

Not surprisingly, the subject of pets often comes up during this discussion, as many of my sixth graders have had to say goodbye to a beloved dog or cat upon leaving for summer camp or vacation. Some of them describe the elaborate instructions they give parents or grandparents, detailing how their cherished animal should be fed, stroked, and put to sleep at night.

Ultimately, my students come to realize that my concern for my daughter, like their worries about their pets and Moses' exhortations to the Israelites, is not about power or control; it's all about love.

And yes, I did insist that my daughter take my warnings with a grain of salt, and walk home that day.

That was all about love as well.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Middle Schoolers and Yom HaShoah: Lessons Learned

A version of this post appears on the Reform Judaism website, along with a link to a video on bullying that my class created a few weeks ago as a response to their Holocaust learning. Please visit at  http://goo.gl/Xyrpdn

A few weeks ago, in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), our religious school invited a Survivor to speak.

The man, who was well into his 80s, was charming and delightful. Dressed in a dapper blue blazer, with a layer of snow-white hair on his head and a hearing aid tucked discreetly behind one ear, he told jokes, displayed photos of his grandchildren, spoke lovingly about his wife and his long marriage, and said that in spite of all he had been through, he never wanted to be a "sad sack." In fact, he said, he had refrained from talking about his childhood for years, until a producer connected with the Spielberg project found him and admonished him for staying silent.

Even now, she told him, there are people who deny the Holocaust; for the sake of future generations, the truth had to be told.

And so he began speaking out, visiting countless communities including ours. He described being kicked out of school and facing increasing hatred; he described a hellish trip on a cattle car and a brutal separation from his family at Auschwitz; he described coming home to learn that his entire family was dead; and he said that he wanted our children to know the facts because, in his words, it could happen again.

At the end of his talk, he noticed a parent in the audience crying quietly, and he went up to her and took her hand. He told her that he wasn't sad, and she shouldn't be either. He asked her to point out her children to him, and when she did, he told her they were beautiful. Then he kissed her hand. It was an amazing moment in an remarkable afternoon.

When I saw my students again a few days later, I asked them to talk about their reactions, and they told me plainly that he had terrified them. His warning that the Holocaust could happen again echoed in their ears. They talked of nightmares after his talk. Several went around checking the locks on the doors before they could go to sleep that night, and making sure they knew where their parents were. They were confused because they didn't feel threatened in their day-to-day lives, and the possible presence of some unknown, unforeseen enemy only compounded their fear.

I knew that this lovely gentlemen would not want fear to be the overriding effect of his talk. So I asked them to consider what positive feelings his talk inspired, and what other aspects of his presentation he might have wanted them to remember.

They told me that it was inspiring that he had made a good life for himself in the United States after all he had been through.

They told me it was inspiring that he refused to be sad and didn't want others to be sad either.

They told me it was inspiring that despite the brutality he had experienced, he was still be capable of giving and receiving love, as evidenced by his happy marriage and his pride in his family.

They told me it was inspiring that he could come and share his story and his life with them.

It was one of the most thoughtful class discussions we have ever had. And I know my students will never forget the Holocaust.

I'm also sure they will never forget this unforgettable gentleman.